On hallowed turf

On hallowed turf

An organisation that has been quietly advising golf greenkeepers for over 80 years is now making a big noise on the international scene. Peter Baber reports.

Some time in the future when someone comes to write a history of golf in Britain and all the important places where the game developed, they are sure to mention St Andrews, of course, and Lytham St Annes – both places where historic games have been battled out.

But if they have any sense of how golf as a sport and a business developed, they ought to mention Bingley too.

For just outside this West Yorkshire town there is an institute – it now likes to call itself a company – that has probably had as much of an impact on the game of golf in the past few decades as Nick Faldo’s taste in knitwear.

Tennis fans should probably doff their hats to this organisation as well, because you could argue that some of the changes it has made at Wimbledon – another client – in the last decade have helped move the grass court game away from the tedium of serve and volley games that many thought set in during the 1990s.

What’s more, the Sports Turf Research Institute, or STRI as it prefers to be known now, is a real success story, currently expanding its operations right around the world.

A huge range of golf courses, rugby pitches, tennis courts, horse racing circuits and much else all around the world owe their success to research that is currently being carried out in Bingley.

And it has definitely benefited from the London Olympics already. It has to be said that the choice of location is partly a result of chance – and a council that was thinking ahead.

In 1929 a couple of golfing enthusiasts who both happened to live near Bingley went over to America and were impressed at the consultancy and research group the US golf authorities had set up at the time to look at golf course development.

They felt it would be a good idea if something similar were set up in the UK. They were both members of the Royal and Ancient, which was only too happy to support the venture, but needed land where the consultancy could be based.

Fortunately Bradford Council, aware of the kudos that might surround having such an organisation located there, agreed, and set aside land, initially on a five-year rolling lease, although this was renegotiated six years ago as an 125-year lease.

The land set aside, on the St Ives Estate, has also doubled in size over the years. Since that time the organisation has grown to the point where it has long since been self-financing, and in the UK alone visits over 2,000 golf courses a year, offering advice on keeping golf greens looking spick and span.

It also advises on all the courses involved in the British Open. What makes it a particularly powerful voice in the industry is that there is nothing else like it anywhere in the world, not even in America, from which STRI’s founders drew their inspiration.

Bingley Turf INSETChief executive Gordon McKillop says all the other major research organisations out there are connected in some way to companies that sell turf.

“They are therefore perceived as having a vested interest,” he says. “We are seen as independent.”

The competition the organisation has, therefore, comes either from one or two man bands, or from greenkeepers who believe they know everything there is to know.

It can rely for much of its authority on the turf and soil testing that goes on within its own grounds, where some 65 staff – the great majority of whom have at least one degree in the subject, usually two – test such things such as the effect of different kinds of diseases and funguses, how effective different types of grasses are (and yes, there is a huge range of them, everything from fescue to ryegrass and beyond) in different types of climate, and even how hard-wearing different turfs are to being played or walked on.

Although golf still takes up 40% of STRI’s business, it has expanded well beyond there as well.

Advising a range of Premership football clubs now accounts for almost as much of its £3.9m turnover as golf, while it also works for top rugby clubs, for many cricket grounds including Lords, for 12 racecourses in the UK and Ireland including Ascot, and for the International Equestrian Federation, where it advises on the turf for the two biggest show jumping venues in the British Isles – Hickstead and the Ark Royal Dublin Society Showground.

In fact, McKillop remembers well just what an impact redesigning the course in Dublin made.

“Not long after we did one weekend it poured with rain all through Ireland, and every sporting event was called off except at the Royal Dublin.” It has also been advising Wimbledon for the past 15 years.

“The All England Club tell us that the quality of the grass on Centre Court on the day of the men’s final now is what they could best hope for on day six before we arrived,” says McKillop.

Nor is that the only way the organisation has influenced the men’s game. “In the old days grass they used on Centre Court was annual meadowgrass, which can easily get into clumps and is relatively uneven,” he says.

“Such unevenness often benefited the serve and volley game. But we moved the mix more to ryegrass, which gives you a firmer court, so you get longer rallies again.

I think it’s a higher quality game, because you have taken the element of luck out of it.” The company was also, as you might expect, heavily involved in consulting on the new roof that has been built over Centre Court.

“The equipment we have allowed us to take photographs digitally of the roof to track the sun on it and determine how much light would fall on the play surface,” says McKillop.

“When the roof was being built we were getting all the drawings sent to us. They were even worried about such things as condensation from sweaty bodies making the court slippy. We could advise on all of that.”

If you think it all sounds very technical for a profession you thought was little more than an old man with a roller, you would be right.

The kind of technology STRI has either developed itself or used over the ages would not be out of place in a high-tech laboratory.

Take, for example, the STRI trueness metre, an instrument which it developed with Sheffield Hallam University and which it has a worldwide patent on.

It can test to within a millimetre just how smooth and true a golf course green is, or at least how smooth and true it should be depending on the resources each club has available.

Each trueness metre costs £10,000 to make, because they are hand made, and STRI initially bought six.

“But we made £100,000 of business with this device last year alone,” says McKillop. There’s something called a decelerometer too, which measures the bounce each green creates.

“We can set parameters that we know a high quality golf course should be within,” says McKillop. “We can also use it with football and horseracing.”

In every way as impressive as the work on the Wimbledon roof, there is a fish eye camera STRI can use which can be fitted underneath the centre line of stadium where, for example, the owners might be wanting to redevelop a stand.

This then plots the movement of the sun at half hourly intervals, and such data can be used to make contour maps to suggest what the effect of the redevelopment on the main pitch would be.

Another client, Ascot, had a problem when it was race day and it wanted to allows cars to drive across the course to get nearer the stands to park.

The car tyres were damaging the course, and although course authorities had been putting straw down to cover the damage up, there was a danger that that was causing the horses to break their stride.

STRI designed a solution where there was a permanent road underneath, but a movable turf platform that could be electronically moved into position for the race and which had a turf quality which Ascot felt was better than what was there before.

While this is impressive, McKillop says one of the objectives he had when he was appointed in the year 2000 was to take advantage of STRI’s unique status to raise its international profile.

This did take a while to achieve. “We didn’t really crack it for five to six years,” he says, “but there has been something of a domino effect: once you get invited in to do one job, and you have proved yourself, getting subsequent is still hard, but not as hard.”

The big break for him came with UEFA. Although McKillop’s initial overtures to the organisation had been rebuffed, he wisely kept sending them quarterly reports on the research that STRI had been doing off its own bat.

Finally one night in 2009 he got a desperate call from a UEFA official worried about the state of the pitch at Fenerbahce, where that year’s UEFA cup final was shortly to be played.

“’You have been pestering me,’ they said. ‘Now is your chance.’ That night we got a consultant out to Turkey, we went on the pitch the next day and told them it could be saved when they had initially been told they needed to returf. We gave them a plan to improve it.”

It wasn’t just UEFA which was impressed with such service: the Turkish FA took STRI on as consultants after that.

And soon FIFA was also knocking on the door – particularly after STRI also saved the day when the inaugural match of the new national stadium in Bucharest exposed huge flaws in the pitch design there.

The result of that is that STRI has been heavily involved in this year’s Euro 2012 championships.

In fact, the company must be one of the few in the country where staff are positively encouraged to watch football at work: McKillop drew up a rota to make sure there was someone watching every match in the tournament – although, obviously, their main focus would be on the pitch quality, not the action. Obviously. There is good news on the Olympics front too.

STRI has built the course for the cross country horse riding event around Greenwich Park – 7km long and 10-15m wide.

“Last summer we had a test event over half the track, and had very positive reviews from riders, managers, and the press,” says McKillop. In fact, work connected with the Olympics in general seems to be building up.

“There seems to be something of a bandwagon,” he says. “Those that get involved in Barcelona moved on to Sydney, then Athens, then Beijing.”

That’s why he is also hopeful for the Olympics in 2016, due to be held in Rio de Janeiro. “We are already in Rio for FIFA and the World Cup,” he says. “You couldn’t want for a better coincidence.

“We can expand on international level when people ask us to come to their country and work for them. You don’t really ever want to go into a new country cold – it’s very difficult for a small business.”

With all this happening overseas, however, it seems almost inevitable that something should blow up at home that might give the organisation pause.

And something did. In 2009 STRI was brought in to consult on the pitch for the new Wembley Stadium, but after only a few months it was clear that something was going wrong.

Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger both stepped in to condemn the pitch conditions, with the latter calling them “laughable”.

In June 2010 STRI resigned from the contract. Looking back, McKillop says he thought the problem was the new Wembley’s business model, which sought to make extra money for the stadium by having a full range of pop concerts held on the pitch.

The stadium roof does not close completely either. “Our advice was that they should look to have permanent pitch with Desso on it. That is plastic fibres which are about 70-80mm in length, the top 20mm of which sticks out. It gives greenness and stability to the turf, even if it is only 2% of the surface area.

"You seed the pitch in, and manage it as a football pitch, rather than taking it in and out all the time, which carries too many risks.”

Although he says STRI has “kept a distance” from Wembley since then, he insists his organisation remains on very good terms with the English FA, even if he was worried about the adverse publicity.

“At the end of day they were happy to take our advice, and we were involved in setting up the new pitch, which is performing well,” he says.

“We parted on very good terms.” In fact, the experience might even have given the company ideas about where to go next, because McKillop says concert management for some of these sporting venues is a key issue that needs addressing.

“A lot of concerts are in the closed season for these pitches, but often there is very little time between the end of the concert and the pitch having to be used,” he says.

“If whatever event you are having is going to kill the pitch, you need to make sure money you get from promoter is sufficient to cover that cost. We need to make sure our clients understand the consequences from their business model of what they are thinking about.”

Of course, such clients are possibly only trying to make ends meet during an economic downturn, something STRI has to be conscious of.

While large organisations such as UEFA will still go on in a recession, McKillop is aware that smaller clients, many of whom actually join STRI as members to get an annual visit, are more hard pressed.

“We have kept our membership fees the same,” he says. “That is our bread and butter, without which we wouldn’t be able to do this glamorous but highly demanding international stuff.”

Nevertheless, he thinks there still is room for international expansion. But curiously enough, the one country that they probably won’t be looking to is the one which inspired STRI in the first place: the USA.

That is first because America operates to a different model which McKillop says “does not work brilliantly” where clubs in effect only pay for the time consultants are actually on the ground, and the consultants themselves are expected to cover the rest.

But there is the risk too. It turns out that there are only two countries which STRI has to get permission to go to from its insurers before departing.

The first is Russia, perhaps for obvious reasons. But the other one is the USA – and all because of the potential threat of litigation. It seems the world of sports turf is a complicated world indeed.